Island Hopping in the U.S.
By Sydni Ellis
What three things would you want on deserted island? As a kid, my answers were always variations of “a boat to get home, a phone to call for help, my mom to keep me company.” For some reason, I was terrified that this was going to happen to me. It didn’t matter that I lived in the middle of Texas or had never even been on a boat – I saw “Cast Away” and I did not want to become Tom Hanks in the future.
Fast forward to today, and my feelings on the matter have changed. Relaxing by the ocean alone – where do I sign up? Don’t worry, you don’t have to be stranded to experience an island paradise. There are many U.S. islands available to enjoy sun, sand and sea with plenty of civilization.
Drive, sail or fly to some of the coolest vacation spots in the country by going island hopping! Circle around the country and see brilliant blue water, exotic wildlife, historical landmarks and delicious food. It’s the perfect chance to experience the island life – six different ways!
First stop: South Padre Island in Texas, which is approximately 600 miles south of Wylie on the Gulf of Mexico. Fly directly to the island, then start your day the right way: on the beach, of course! Have some classic summertime fun playing in the sand here in the Sandcastle Capital of the World. For inspiration, check out the largest outdoor sandcastle in the U.S. and other people’s impressive creations – intricate sand-made buildings, animals and cartoon characters abound.
Make sure to stop by the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, a five-story wildlife viewing tower! Look up to see the 300+ species of migratory birds, who soar through the sky in the fall and spring. Other animal-friendly activities include going on a dolphin tour boat ride; riding horseback along the shore; visiting the Sea Life Center to see and touch fish, starfish, crabs and octopus; and checking out Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles.
Next, travel across the Gulf to Sanibel Island in Florida. Just fly four-and-a-half hours to Fort Myers, then rent a car and drive 45-minutes onto the island. Visit the peaceful Bowman’s Beach, with miles of white sand perfect for walking, relaxing or hunting for shells. Of course, if you want guaranteed access to gorgeous shells, check out the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, where you can admire iridescent shells from around the world and learn about the animals that created them. Explore more nature at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 5,000-acre nature reserve containing birds, otters, alligators, gopher tortoises and other creatures. Walk, take a canoe ride or drive through the scenic refuge, also featuring picture-perfect nature scenes filled with sea grape, salt myrtles, Sabal palms and more.
Another can’t-miss item at this island is the Sanibel Lighthouse, a beautifully restored historical landmark that has been guiding sea-farers since 1884. You can walk on the boardwalk, see the native wetlands or hang out on the fishing pier with the 50+ different fish species.
It’s time for stop three: Nantucket Island in Massachusetts! Catch a five-hour flight northeast to Boston, then drive an hour-and-a-half south to Cape Cod. Next, board a ferry and enjoy the one-hour cruise to Nantucket. This tiny island on the Atlantic Ocean used to be a prominent whaling destination in the 1800s. History buffs can learn more about the trade inside the fascinating Whaling Museum, which includes a forty-six-foot sperm whale skeleton and other interesting artifacts. Later, visit the town’s many lighthouses such as the Sankaty Head Lighthouse built in 1850, the Great Point Lighthouse opened in 1769 and the Brant Point Lighthouse established in 1746.
The island is also home to 80 miles of public beaches. Be a beach bum on the calm Jetties Beach or catch a gorgeous sunset at Madaket Beach. To really get a feel for the place, rent a bike and coast over 32 miles of trails to see every part of the island up close. One of the best places? The storybook-like Main Street, featuring cobblestoned streets and stunningly preserved 18th and 19th-century architecture, is a perfect place to take a Sunday stroll (and lots of pictures!).
Pack up and head inland to Mackinac Island. Take a six-hour flight west to Pellston, Michigan; from there, drive 12 miles to Mackinaw City and hop on the 16-minute ferry ride to the quaint island, which sits just off the northern tip of Michigan on Lake Huron. Hop on a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of the place, which is just 8.2 miles around. This adorable island is like a movie set: it’s filled with charming bed-and-breakfasts, local restaurants and one-of-a-kind shopping, without chain restaurants or hotels – except the always-essential Starbucks!
More than 80 percent of the island is a state park, so many of its natural attractions are free. Take pictures of the gorgeous Arch Rock, with water flowing underneath; picnic in Marquette Park, filled with colorful trees in autumn; and hike up to Fort Holmes, a military fort built in 1814 that’s on the island’s highest point. If you visit August 23-25, then you’re in for a rich treat: you can attend the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival! Join other “fudgies” (people obsessed with the best, most decadent fudge around) for a weekend of fun. Check out the famous fudge shops, drink fudge-infused cocktails, play fudge-themed games and, of course, eat all the fudge your heart desires. After all – calories don’t count on vacation!
Ready for a change of scenery? Fly more than 2,000 miles west directly to San Juan Island in northwest Washington state and go to the Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of the best, land-based whale-watching spots in the world! This park, situated on top of a rocky bluff, is also a great place for hiking, touring the 19th-century lime kiln or sitting by the 100-year-old lighthouse to watch the orca, humpback and minke whales swim.
Later, stop by the Westcott Bay Shellfish Company (a farm open through Labor Day) to enjoy Pacific oysters, Manila clams and Mediterranean mussels grown on site. Also, meet the sweet alpacas at the Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and take pictures in the 25-acre Pelindaba Lavender Farm, which is also a great place for homemade lavender souvenirs. Before leaving, visit the bustling Friday Harbor, a popular spot for authentic, small-town shopping, historical museums, local restaurants, art galleries and island events.
Finally, end your island-hopping adventure in Catalina Island in southern California. Just get on a two-and-a-half-hour flight south from San Juan Island to Long Beach, where you can transfer to an hour-long ferry ride or 15-minute helicopter ride to the island. With the sunny weather, 50-miles of coastline and plenty of picturesque views of cliffs, palm trees and water to enjoy, Catalina Island is a summertime delight. If you still have energy left, use it while ziplining through canyons, scuba diving through kelp forests, exploring the island via parasail or going stand-up paddle-boarding on the sparkling water.
Otherwise, relax on a glass-bottomed boat ride, lay out on the three public beaches or sample award-winning bites by the bay on the Avalon Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour. Make sure you try the island’s signature cocktail, Buffalo Milk, made with vodka, Kahlua, creme de cacao, milk and fresh bananas that is blended and topped with whipped cream and nutmeg. It’s easy to see why everyone is so laid-back here!
Each of these islands offers the chance to break from normal life and really enjoy yourself – which is what island life is all about! If you need me, I’ll be the one laid out by the water with my three essential island items: sunscreen, an extra fluffy towel and my entire collection of Karin Slaughter crime novels.